Friday, June 27, 2014

Reparations Are Our Collective Responsibility

MLK, in a short video clip, speaking about reparations
People get ready, there's a train a-comin',
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin',
Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
—"People Get Ready," Curtis Mayfield

Just over a month ago, Ta-Nahisi Coates, national correspondent at The Atlantic, posted "The Case for Reparations," a 15,000-word piece of journalism that I have been unable to put out of my head ever since. Part historical narrative, part on-the-ground reporting, and part persuasive rhetoric, "The Case for Reparations" persuasively and compellingly lays out an argument in favor of reparations for African Americans who have been negatively affected by structural, legal, government-sanctioned racism in America.

The subtitle of the piece is "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole." In enumerating the harms done to African Americans since slavery, the subtitle points toward the thing that separates this Case from your ordinary street-level conversation about reparations: the basic argument against them has always been "the slaves are all dead now." Coates points out that you don't have to go back to dead slaves to find African Americans who have been harmed by legalized racism; there are people alive and well today who could and should benefit from direct reparations.

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Reparations have never before this year been a subject of interest to me; while my interest in left-wing politics has been growing for some time, reparations haven't really ever been on my radar, and if you'd asked me about them any time before 2014, I would have told you I thought they sounded like a bad idea at best.

"The Slave Trade" by Auguste Francois Biard. Source

The thing that jolted me into turning in a different direction was an article about how slavery made the modern world. The article describes the way slavery (that is, the West's race-based chattel slavery of the last several centuries) undergirds so much of what we take for granted in modern life. This is especially true in America, where slave labor was the economic engine that drove the most of country's early growth and prosperity.1 American slaves, of course, were never officially compensated for their unpaid labor, much less the loss of their freedom, and the result was that emancipated African Americans as a group started their free lives with grave economic disadvantages compared to most of their fellow citizens.

Since reading that article, my opinion on the need for reparations has gradually shifted from a hard "no" to a soft "yes." I found myself musing about it at odd moments: "So what if the slaves are all dead now? Let's do a thought experiment: my father works for a company that denies him a paycheck, and then he dies. Don't I have the right to ask the company for the money he was owed, since I would have inherited it if they hadn't denied it to him? How much more, then, do the descendants of slaves have a right to ask of the society that never paid their ancestors for their labor that they be given something in compensation? After all, they, and their parents, and their grandparents, and so on, would have inherited and benefited from that original wealth if it had not been unjustly denied to the slaves."

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Abraham Lincoln addresses the nation. Source
In "Puritans and Prigs," a wide-ranging essay about America, society, religion, and morality, Marilynne Robinson laments the current shift away from a sense of collective responsibility in America. She writes of our country before its most recent decades:
When things went wrong in Calvinist America, the minister or mayor or governor or president, including of course Lincoln, would declare a Day of Fasting and Humiliation, during which businesses and offices closed and the population went to their various churches to figure out what they were doing wrong and how to repent of it. The assumption of present responsibility for the present state of things was a ritual feature of life in this culture for two and a half centuries, and is entirely forgotten by us now.
The Death of Adam, pg. 155
Americans have a pretty good grasp of individual responsibility; it's considered quite important here, especially on the political right, where it's an absolutely essential, core value. I take care of myself, and I am responsible for my own failures. Collective or societal responsibility, though, is valued almost nowhere in the States, except perhaps on the fringes of the political left. The notion that I can or should be held responsible in any way for something I didn't personally do—like, say, enslaving people—runs directly against the grain of modern American individualism. What Robinson goes to some lengths to show in her essay is that this blindness to collective responsibility is not a fundamentally American phenomenon but a modern, recent American phenomenon, and that it is something very much worth pushing back against.

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In an interview with the Washington Post, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that collective responsibility isn't actually all that foreign to modern Americans either, if we just stop and think about it:
We pay for things all the time that we didn’t do...I wasn’t around when World War I happened but we’re still paying pensions. That had nothing to do with me, but I understand that I have to pay into that. That’s sort of what government means. If a state dies with every generation, what kind of state is that? When people talk about debt, or the state of Social Security, they talk about what kind of world are we leaving to our children. They understand that the country continues, that the country was here before us and that it will be here after we die.
All Americans benefit from slavery, because we live in a country that was built by slaves, not just in economic and other figurative ways, but also in a very concrete sense.

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Two things about "The Case for Reparations" set it apart and make it really shine. First, as I mentioned at the start, even if you reject the notion of paying people for evils done to their deceased ancestors, Coates makes a strong case for reparations to living people, too. I won't spell it out here, since this post is getting long, but suffice it to say that living African Americans have been harmed by official, legal policies of the US government, and deserve restitution for that harm.

Second, and even better, is what Coates elsewhere calls the "radical practicality" of reparations. The idea of reparations has this veneer of pie-in-the-sky, crazy bleeding-heart liberal scheme to it, but Coates shows that it is actually completely doable, for a number of reasons:
  • It's been done before: 
    • Americans have paid reparations for other collective wrongs, internment camps for Japanese Americans, for example. 
    • We've actually also paid reparations for slavery, just the wrong way round: a post-Civil War act of Congress paid reparation to former slave owners for the loss of their "property" due to emancipation! 
  • It's been done elsewhere in the face of staunch opposition: Germany paid reparations to Jews after WWII, even though most Germans and Jews opposed reparations, and they ended up both boosting the German economy and helping build the foundations of the new state of Israel.
  • There's even a bill in the US House of Representatives, that ordinary Americans can support by calling their representative. It's brought before Congress every year, and it advocates a simple study of the idea of reparations, surely a very practical measure.2 
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My dad always said the conclusion to any piece of writing has to answer the question, "So what?" In this case, the more pointed and relevant question is: "Why are reparations important if I'm not going to be a beneficiary?" I think the answer is complicated, but it's related to that Marilynne Robinson quote from earlier. American society has a profound need to grapple with the issue of collective responsibility, responsibility both for the way things are now and for recognizing and correcting the wrongs in our past. Many of our country's deepest ills stem from a refusal to acknowledge or atone for collective wrongs, past and present. I think the conversation about how race factors into those wrongs is crucial, and it's a conversation that's not been adequately attempted or even imagined by most Americans. I think the idea of reparations in general, and discussion of "The Case for Reparations" in particular, can be a step in the right direction for our nation.3

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Two final items: first, here is a link to all the articles on reparations that I've found and posted on my Tumblr this year; I'm sure there will be more over time. Second, if you're looking for the quickest and funnest entry point into Coates' work and ideas, check out his six-minute interview with Stephen Colbert below.

1. For example:
In the United States, scholars have demonstrated that profit wasn’t made just from Southerners selling the cotton that slaves picked or the cane they cut. Slavery was central to the establishment of the industries that today dominate the US economy: finance, insurance, and real estate. And historian Caitlan Rosenthal has shown how Caribbean slave plantations helped pioneer 'accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics, to manage their land and their slaves'—techniques that were then used in northern factories.
2. John Conyers, the bill's author, says of it:
H.R. 40 has strong grass roots support within the African American community, including major civil rights organizations, religious organizations, academic and civic groups from across the country. This support is very similar to the strong grassroots support that proceeded another legislative initiative: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday bill. It took a full 15 years from the time I first introduced it on April 5, 1968 to its passage in the fall of 1983. Through most of those 15 years, the idea of a federal holiday honoring an African American civil rights leader was considered a radical idea. Like the King Holiday bill, we have seen the support for this bill increase each year. Today we have over 40 co-sponsors, more than at any time in the past. What is also encouraging is the dramatic increase in the number of supporters for the bill among Members of Congress who are not members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
3. My biggest concern about the implementation of reparations is backlash from white people. Not because I think white people are inherently racist, but because we happen to be living in a time of incredible economic inequality. I suspect that if white people see back people getting an economic benefit without a simultaneous effort to enact some kind of all-encompassing, non-racial economic equalizer for American society in general, things are going to get ugly. Which is less a concern about reparations than about economic inequality in general, I suppose.

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